Chapter 1:
Breaking Old Chains
felons statistics in the United States

getting out success after incarceration by j. m. wielandThere are more than 5.6 million felons in the United States who cannot vote legally. That is roughly 2.5% of our country’s population. Estimates put the total felon population, those in and out of prison, at roughly 20 million. To put that in perspective, the total estimated population of felons in the United States is greater than the total combined population of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia and Phoenix. (Bureau, 2011) With such a large population you would think our voice, the voice of felons, would be loud enough to garner support, but the truth is just the opposite. The public stigma of a “felon” creates a false perception that we must have committed a major crime like rape, murder or grand theft. In reality the vast majority of felony convictions are related to drugs, gun crimes or minor theft charges. It has been the actions of the few that have dictated the public perception of the many when it relates to felons, or any other class of criminal. This perception makes it next to impossible to find work, a place to live and rebuild a life that is both beneficial for the individual as well as society at large.

The most common argument the public voices against helping felons rebuild after incarceration is “why should we help someone that committed a crime and hurt society?” First consider the cost. In  2007, around $74 billion was spent on correctional facilities, including court costs, housing, feeding, providing mental and physical health services and transporting criminals. In comparison, the budget for the NIH (National Institutes of Health) in 2015 was only $30 billion. Keep in mind that the NIH is an organization whose mission is to advance the health of all Americans, not just criminals, through research and other initiatives. We, as a country, spend twice as much on housing criminals than we do on trying to improve the health of all Americans. One of the institutes, the National Institute of Mental Health, has a budget of close to 1.5 billion dollars. There are roughly 1 in 5 American adults with a mental health issue, that is 18.2% of our population in comparison to the small 2.5% of us who cannot vote due to a criminal record. (Bekiempis, 2014) In 2010 the annual cost to house a criminal in a correctional facility was $25,838.00. (Hirby, 2014) In that same year the average annual income of a family of four considered "in poverty" by the federal government was $24,250.00. (Office, 2015) In 2013, the poverty population of the US was around 13.5%. (United States Census Bureau , 2013) All of this data means that more money is spent on housing a single felon than a family of four on poverty earns in wages in one year. This is why we need prison reform. Not because felons deserve a major review of freedom and rights restoration. Not because there is a great injustice against felons, but because without it, we will continue to pay more for housing one felon then for helping the larger need of impoverished and mentally in-need citizens.

We are flushing money down the toilet by spending more on criminal procedures and maintenance than we are on the well being of our general population. This is due in part to prison and jail privatization, but also because the general population of felons in the United States is exploding. The NAACP provides some of the most startling details about our incarceration rates. From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people. Today, the U.S. holds 5% of the world's population and houses 25% of world's prisoners. Combining the number of people in prison and jail with those under parole or probation supervision, 1 in every 31 adults, or 3.2% of the population is under some form of correctional control. (NAACP, 2015) John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight on HBO explains one of the fundamental reasons for this explosion in incarcerated citizens: mandatory minimums.

"Ridiculously long sentences are not a great deterrent to crime. Prison sentences are a lot like penises: If they're used correctly, even a short one can do the trick." The drug paranoia of the 1980s and 1990s led to mandatory prison sentences for criminals found with certain measurements of drugs. This means that a young man found with a small amount of marijuana can be sentenced to 55 years in prison without the possibility of parole; keep in mind that marijuana is now legal in some states. (Mazza, 2015)

As more of the public becomes aware of the increased prison sentences being demanded for small crimes and the rise in criminal sentencing rates, a new question arises: just who are we putting behind bars and declaring felons? According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the average makeup of a U.S. prisoner is a white male between the ages of 31-40 who has committed a drug offence. (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2015) Of all of the categories of crimes that incarcerate an offender, drug related convictions make up 48.7% of the prison population. The next highest category is related to weapons charges at 16.1%. However, if you consider the research done by the NAACP, the numbers get a little skewed. They show that 58% of all prisoners in the U.S. are either African American or Hispanic. Meaning that we charge more minorities for drug and weapon related charges than any other segment of our population.

The statistics get harsher when you consider the contributing factors as to why people end up in jail. The Treatment Advocacy Center claims that 16.7% of inmates in jails and state prisons suffer from a mental illness. (14.5% of males, 31% of females) We are actively replacing the people we used to send to hospitals and mental wards with jail cells and handcuffs. Mental illness is not the larger population concern however, it is education. The state of Florida conducted research as to the basic literacy and educational level of incoming inmates during 2009-2010 and found that the median grade level of literacy in adults is that of a 6th grader. (Florida, 2010) That is a much lower grade level of literacy than the general U.S. population. It should also come as no surprise that the race breakdown of literacy rates in our country favor white, non-Hispanic Americans over any other minority. In other words, we are incarcerating those with less education, using some form of drug, who tend to be of a non-white race more than any other demographic in the United States.

The only real attainable solution to lowering our prison and probation populations is through you, the individual criminal deciding to change. I'm not writing this book so that some senator or congressman can take up the call of millions of felons in this country for better treatment; although that wouldn't be unwelcome. I'm writing this book because I'm sick and tired of meeting other felons who are so depressed, so riddled by self-pity, that they are not able to stand up and dust off the shame of their crimes to pursue a better life. I know this feeling because I am a felon. I understand how hard it is to get fair treatment. I understand how hard it is to find viable work, meet new friends and explain your crimes to a loved one. I know the pain and the suffering involved in being branded a "dangerous criminal" for the rest of your life, but I do not accept that brand to be the final determining factor of my biography.

These facts are not described here to rage against the prison machine; that will take far more intelligent and better equipped people than myself. I present this information up front to set the stage of who I will be addressing. We need to lower the rate of repeat offenders and present a better role model for the next generation. We need to show the world that a past crime was a mistake and not the defining characteristic of our future. I challenge you, the criminal, the friend or family member of a felon, the curious reader, to confront your stereotypes and ask one simple question: "Am I capable of having a better life?" The only answer should be a resounding YES. We live in a country of significant opportunity and possible second chances. Take hold of your own situation and seek the help and charity of those who you trust. Swallow your pride and get to work, otherwise all you are doing is proving to the world your lack of value. Be an outlier. Be the one statistic that is indefinable by the world and show your true value by being a contributing member of society.

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